Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

December 24, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Best pop music 2011: Seattle and beyond

Posted by Andrew Matson

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"Shabazz Foxes" image courtesy Studio 103

It was another great year for music, despite what you might have witnessed on "American Idol" or "X Factor."

And while quality was all around, technology made quantity the theme of the year. Accessible home-recording software plus free Internet distribution on websites like and equaled an insane barrage of tunes, available for free, cheap or the increasingly popular pay-what-you-will option.

That volume makes any authoritative best-of list ridiculous. Nevertheless, below are my top 10 local and national/international albums of 2011, in order of excellence. Click the titles to listen to music and find more year-end rankings below, along with the track list to my "Twitter Tape 2011" — a special nine-song download of local cuts you might have missed.

Follow me at Download the tape here.


1. Shabazz Palaces, "Black Up" (Sub Pop)
Hip-hop made an artistic comeback in 2011 and Shabazz Palaces epitomized that with its swirling, heady "Black Up." The album was full of unorthodox songs made from synthesizers and mbiras and God knows what else that somehow coalesced into side A and side B while transcending genre, time and space.

2. Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" (Sub Pop)
Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold is the Pacific Northwest's main diva right now. With one of the most crisp, piercing singing voices on record all year, he and his expert band rose head and shoulders above the rest of the booming neo-folk movement. The vinyl edition of their album was one of the top 10 sellers in that format.

3. Metal Chocolates, "Metal Chocolates" (Out For Stardom;
Genre-bending producer/vocalist OC Notes and rapper Rik Rude holed up in a Pioneer Square studio, called themselves Metal Chocolates and painted the neighborhood using hip-hop and dance music. It was alternately chaotic and calm and altogether brilliant -- a new way to hear the oldest part of town.

4. Various, "Coastal Sightings" (Cairo Records)
Centered on musicians who frequent the tiny arts space/record label Cairo on Capitol Hill, this compilation surfaced existential chillwave, broken-apart rock'n'roll and other unique creations from Seattle's underground, with triumphant highlights from John Oven and M. Women.

5. The Physics, "Love is a Business" (self-released;
Seattle's pride-driven hip-hop group made a soulful minor classic with "Love is a Business," an album of slow tunes with soft edges that peaked with a summertime tribute to Seward Park.

6. Milk Music, "Beyond Living" (Perennial Death)
Our region has lots of heavy blues and metal bands — but not enough aggressive acts mixing punk and indie rock. For those missing that kind of thing, Milk Music saved the day with "Beyond Living," a muscular, dirty, catchy scream of life.

7. Dude York, "Satanic Vs." (self-released;
The time is right for '90s pop-rock revivalism, and tinnitus-inducing Dude York was a local high point for the throwback sound in 2011. "Satanic Vs." took up the romantic/angry struggle of "Pinkerton"-era Weezer and splattered it with righteous electric guitar leads and a better sense of humor.

8. Keyboard Kid, "The Mind is so Complex When Your Based" (self-released;
This album of instrumental hip-hop was ethereal and emotional, full of drizzle and sunbreaks like overlapping transparencies. Though not widely regarded, it was a transporting triumph for the Internet-fueled, gut-level style called "based." It was also Keyboard Kid's best album in a short but so far prolific career.

9. Craft Spells, "Idle Labor" (Captured Tracks)
Beacon Hill's Justin Vallesteros, as Craft Spells, recorded zippy '80s jangle-rock/synth-pop that sounded great in the summer and at winter parties, too. With its sturdy songwriting and clean production values, it still has legs going into 2012.

10. OC Notes, "Secret Society" (self-released;
We knew OC Notes as a hip-hop/dance producer and DJ, but "Secret Society" revealed a bigger picture of this gifted individual, a former Puyallup punk rocker unafraid to follow his muse from smoky funk-rap to bedroom singer-songwriter fare.


1. Shabazz Palaces, "Black Up" (Sub Pop)
See above.

2. Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" (Sub Pop)
See above.

3. Adele, "21" (XL)
The most inescapable album of 2011 was massive for good reason: Adele sang with power and delicacy that felt authentic and had a strengthening effect on the listener.

4. Gil Scott-Heron / Jamie xx, "We're New Here" (XL)
"We're New Here" mixed legendary jazz-fusion player Scott-Heron's spoken/sung poetry with London producer Jamie xx's trance-y, hip-hop-esque beats, making a remix album that sounded bad on paper but good in real life. It took on greater significance when Scott-Heron died this year.

5. James Blake, "James Blake" (Universal Republic)
Blake's songs/productions on his debut album felt like poetic use of a new language, bravely going beyond soulful singer-songwriter music and into the realm of audio design, borrowing from the London electronic underground.

6. Watch the Throne, "Watch the Throne" (Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella / Roc Nation)
Two of the greatest rappers alive (Kanye West and Jay-Z) joined forces on this uneven but ultimately satisfying album that showed popular American hip-hop increasingly influenced by European electronic music and struggling to find hope for humanity in general. It was a hard thing to rejoice about, but that was part of the point.

7. Clams Casino, "Instrumental mixtape" (Type Records)
New Jersey's Clams Casino has invented his own melodic, richly textured take on hip-hop from slowed-down samples of other people's records. Whatever that genre is, it cohered on "Instrumental mixtape" into an hourlong sunset — radiant, ecstatic, decaying.

8. Lil B, "I'm Gay (I'm Happy)" (Amalgam Digital)
Bay Area rapper Lil B reined in his blown-mind stream-of-consciousness "based" style on "I'm Gay" and developed one point: some of the most dangerous environments in life aren't physical, but mental. He almost undermined that message in his lyrics, veering from traditional sense-making, but ultimately, "I'm Gay" felt like a moment of clarity.

9. Metal Chocolates, "Metal Chocolates" (Out For Stardom;
See above.

10. Britney Spears, "Femme Fatale" (Jive)
Disgraced by drugs and bad decisions, pop star Britney Spears, it seemed, was finished. But "Femme Fatale" found the former teen queen acting as if losing control were always her intent, the better to connect with dark, hedonistic electronic rave music. It was totally manufactured but expertly so.


"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" by OC Notes and Cat Satisfaction
"Good Old Desk" by Drunken Robot
"Pretty Baby" by Michael Dean
"Let it Shine" by Sax G
"Yuk the Police" by Yuk feat. Spaceman and Xperience
"I Hate Myself" by Lil B (prod. Keyboard Kid)
"Ilsebill" by Hausu
"No Shirts, No Shoes, No Love" by Monsters by Midnight
"These Moments" by The Physics


Shabazz Palaces / THEESatisfaction "Noir Night Ship" team-up at Neumos, 02/17
James Blake at Central Presbyterian Church (SXSW), 03/17
Robyn at the Paramount, 10/20
Watch the Throne at Tacoma Dome, 12/16


THEESatisfaction "Awe Naturale" (Sub Pop)
Kung Foo Grip / Giorgio Momurda (title/label TK)
Stephanie "One Glove" (Cairo Records)
Witch Gardens (title TK) (Couple Skate)
Damien Jurado "Maraqopa" (Secretly Canadian)
Tay Sean "Kingdom Crumbs" (Cloud Nice)


Whatever comes from the fast-rising blue-eyed soul/hip-hop triumvirate of Allen Stone, Pickwick and Macklemore, it will be wildly popular. If there is a physical document, it will be a best-seller at Easy Street and Sonic Boom for months on end.

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I would much rather read about the best newly written symphonic music of 2011.  Posted on December 24, 2011 at 7:12 PM by girl power. Jump to comment
I scanned the article but didn't see any mention of Motopony, a local band I have been enjoying alot lately.  Posted on December 24, 2011 at 1:09 PM by willyone. Jump to comment